A podcast called Freakonomics recently ran a 4-part series called “How to Succeed at Failing.” While listening to the final episode, I considered one of my own huge failures – my failure to become a successful romance writer. Since one of the issues raised in the discussions was the denial of failure, I realized that while I draw heavily from stories about that era of my life when trying to make various points, I’ve never told the whole story. So, here it is.
In 1983, I was personally motivated by the Napoleon Hill quote, “Anything the mind of man can conceive and believe in it can achieve,” I decided to put it to the test and see if I could “achieve” something I had failed at before – becoming adept at playing the piano. When I began again, it had been twenty years or so since I had taken lessons as a child (with no evident talent for it).
This time, unlike when I’d been forced to practice by my mother, I truly applied myself.
If you examine the above quote carefully, the amount of work required is merely implied. Hill says “conceive” and “believe.” He does not say work, or practice” or apply oneself, or anything else about how much effort might be required.
About six months into this project, my husband came in one day when I was hammering away at a section of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.”He leaned his shoulder on our old upright, and said, “Kathy, if you worked that hard at writing, you’d be a writer.”
That was a breath-taking moment for me, stopping me in my tracks as surely as running into a wall. He was right, of course.
So I asked myself, why didn’t I write? Why was I putting all that effort into something I had no talent for – and no belief in?
After a while, days or weeks perhaps, I realized that where writing was concerned I was immobilized by fear. Not the fear of writing itself, I knew I had a talent for that. And somewhere deep inside me, I knew that someday I would be a writer. What I didn’t know, was if I tried it and failed, who would I be?
So, quite abruptly, I decided I would put that to the test. I would start writing and discover who I could become.
Great. I would stop being afraid and start doing.
Except since I couldn’t put the fear entirely aside – no emotion reacts well to being shoved off to one sidee – I decided I would write a romance novel. And I made this decision for the strongest of all possible reasons. I thought romance novels were stupid, and if they were stupid writing them must be easy.
In other words, I shot myself in the foot before writing my first word!
But I still went for it with strong intent. I went to the library and checked out an armload of paper-back romances. I spent the next six weeks getting acquainted with my chosen genre and writing my first book. When I finished it, I sent it off to Harlequin and started writing book #2.
During this time I learned about an organization called Romance Writers of America, discovered there was a local chapter and started attending meetings. Early on, I met a writing teacher who specialized in the romance genre, and I signed up for her class. By then I was working on book #3, and the teacher was so impressed with my work she suggested I enter the annual RWA competition for unpublished writers. I had to borrow money for the entrance fees and I submitted both book #2, which was finished, and book #3, which was not. About this time, I finally received a rejection letter from Harlequin on that first manuscript.
Amazingly, I finalled in the RWA competition, which meant I had to rush the manuscript through to completion. Again borrowing the money, I went to my first RWA convention. I did not win, but I found an agent willing to represent me.
At this point, I believed I was on my way! Hooray!
Back then, judges filled out critique sheets on the competition entries. For book #2, every comment was negative. (I can’t remember any of them.) For book #3, every comment was good. (I can’t remember any of them, either.) What I learned from both was that neither was helpful. All negative feedback was just daunting. All positive feedback provided nothing for me to work with. From that whole experience, I learned a lot more about how much I didn’t know.
I dedicated myself to writing romances for probably fifteen years. I have no idea how many stories I conceived, plotted, worked on, and submitted during that time. Probably more than two dozen. Four of them became published novels – under three different imprints (Heritage, Harlequin, and Silhouette). I know that I replotted, reworked and rewrote each of those four at least four times each. (Which in a way adds up to 16 different stories right there.) These four titles came out about four years apart, each with a different author name on the cover. Romantic Times referred to me as a “talented new author” three times.
This could not be considered a successful career.
But during this fifteen-year effort, for about ten of them I taught classes in writing popular fiction. At that I was very successful. I created some amazing materials. In addition to formal classes and ongoing local workshops, I presented day-long workshops in five different states. And from among my students, about 90% who finished their novels were then published. (Finished is the operative word here, but many of these writers completed their manuscripts because I also coached them in confidence and perseverance.)
I stopped writing romances after my fourth novel came out in print. That same year I submitted five proposals to my editor, all of which she rejected. By the fifth rejection, I had decided I just couldn’t do romance anymore, and at the same time my editor suggested the genre was not right for me.
When I switched from practicing piano to becoming a writer, that was true for me. When I chose to write romances (which I didn’t believe in) that was not true for me. Hence my inability to achieve what I conceived.
But in spite of my “failure,” this was a very satisfying and fulfilling time in my life. Why? Because of the gifts that arose from my failed efforts:
I became a far more accomplished writer.
I met lots of fantastic people, some whom became long-term friends.
I gained skills in teaching, in public presentation, in conducting workshops and seminars, and in coaching.
I learned to accept criticism gladly and to receive rejection calmly.
And best of all I learned more about myself, my talents, my values, and my Best Good.
When we’re willing to accept the gifts of failure, it transforms from a mistake to an opportunity.
Look at the world with wonder and at yourself with warmth.